Monday, January 31, 2005

An Aching Soul

[This was a sermon that I delivered this past Shabbos. Many thanks to Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, whose exquisite work Tears of Sorrow, Tears of Hope, formed the basis of much of this sermon. Listening to Neshama Carlebach's recording of Return Again helped give voice to the anguish in my soul, and I used it in my sermon as well.}

[Hum the A section of Return Again]

My soul is aching. It has been all week. Ever since I arrived at work on Monday and was informed that one of the moms in our school delivered a daughter who was stillborn early that morning. All week I have tried to help our staff as they mourn the loss of life that was not to be. All week, I have felt the impact of a loss that I pray will never be mine.

Where can we find comfort? A baby born still leaves the family with no memories other than those tinged with grief. The fragments of dreams and unfulfilled hopes are strewn about, and we try to comprehend the reality of a life with such overwhelming sadness.

Our tradition teaches: “What does God do in the heavenly realm? God sits and teaches the little children who have died.” (Avodah Zara 3b)

How angry we are at a God who would allow such tragedy! What meaning can possibly be found in the death of one who has yet to take a single breath??

The rabbis were not immune to these feelings. Living in a time of high infant mortality, they were no strangers to the loss of children, and struggled with the same crises of faith as we do today. For them, and now for us, comfort was found in images of God as parent, teacher, and companion to the child.

When the rabbis imagined the World to Come, they often envisioned a yeshiva shel maalah, an academy on high, with God as the Consumate Teacher of Torah and themselves as eternal students. In the days of the World to Come, the rabbis say that the righteous will sit with crowns of light on their heads, basking in the radiance of God, who sits before them. And when the rabbis sought comfort over the loss of their children, when they tried to imagine where these perfect little ones had gone, they imagined that the children would live forever in the presence of God, the Parent of Parents and the Teacher of Teachers. More than that, the rabbis believed that it was not they alone who were comforted by this vision; God, the One who Weeps with us, was comforted as well.

[Hum the B section of Return Again]

Job wrote, “A life blossoms like a flower and withers, it vanishes like a shadow and does not endure…The length of our days are set; the number of our months are with You. You set limits that we cannot pass.” (Job 14:2, 5)

When a child is born still, that flower never blossoms. The mother and father arrive expectantly at the hospital, but return home with empty arms and a grieving heart. Ein od t’fillah bis’fatai, I am empty of prayer. That space is filled instead with tears. With shadows. We cannot yet form the words to praise Your Name, O God. So accept our tears instead. The Midrash teaches us that while all the other gates of heaven may close, the gates of tears are always open.

For many generations, traditional Jewish practice has long held that there is to be no official mourning for an infant who dies before reaching thirty days of life. There are historical reasons for this. In the Middle Ages, when Jewish Law was being codified, large numbers of infants did not survive birth. To the Rabbis of the time, relieving parents of the obligation to mourn a stillborn or an infant that was less than a month old was viewed as compassionate. Medical technology has advanced to the point that most pregnancies are viable and babies who are born with critical conditions can often be brought to health rather than die as they would have in the past. Therefore, the liberal Jewish community, recognizing that the prior Halakha robs the parents of the opportunity to mourn their child in an appropriately Jewish manner, encourages the burial of babies who are born still in order to provide their families an opportunity to begin the long healing process that often starts with burial.

[Hum the A section again]

My heart is breaking. When I am faced with a crisis, I respond by buying books. Getting my hands on anything that will give me an explanation. Some understanding. Guidance. Anything. I slip into my daughter's room at night. Poppyseed, the lightest of sleepers, rouses and blinks in the dark as if to say, "Mommy, what are you doing here." "I just wanted to be sure of you," I whisper. Beernut catches me staring at him. "Are you OK, Mommy? You have a funny look." I hug him tightly, thanking God for having him each day.

What could I possibly say or do that will bring consolation? What can I, as a rabbi, do to fill the emptiness? What can we do as a community do to acknowledge the loss of one who never knew the breath of life that comes from God? How can we provide comfort to the broken-hearted?

David Morawetz, a grieving father writes in Go Gently:
Some people give me advice:
“You must have another.
You must talk a lot about it.
You can grow through this.”
I am angry.
Some try to make it better:
“It could have been worse.
You must appreciate what you’ve got.
Life goes on.”
I want to yell:
“You are right, but that is for me to say.”
Some try desperately to avoid the subject:
I feel disappointed, disconnected.

Then there are those, the blessed ones,
who say in so many ways the only thing I need to hear.
“I am so sorry, David,”
“I am with you, David.”
The ones who, even five weeks later, ask gently, as if for the first time:
“How are you today?”
“How are you doing now?”
These bring tears to my eyes.
These you could not buy with gold.

Ultimately, it is our presence and acknowledgement of the child that can bring some amount of strength to the mourners.

El Malei Rachamin, God full of compassion, place these tiniest of beginnings, these slight and small beginnings, these tiny and tender roots, lacking form and countenance, but still desired and loved, among the holy and pure ones who shine brilliantly as the heavens. May You always envelope them in Your Eternal embrace.

[Sing lyrics of Return Again]

Return to who you are,
Return to what you are,
Return to where you are born and reborn again.

Return again,
Return again,
Return to the land of your soul.

Monday, January 24, 2005


It is that time of the month again! Well, yes that time of the month too. But I was actually referring to Migraine-time.

To say that I only started having Migraines would be only partially true. In fact, I suspect that I have been having them for years. What would be a more accurate statement is that I was only recently diagnosed with Migraines. It took a trip to the Urgent Care clinic over Thanksgiving weekend with a headache that no OTC medicine (or some other-wise prescribed pills in our medicine cabinet) could come close to touching before I realized that its not actually normal to have pain that brings me to my knees (quite literally, sometimes).

Friday night it began. I took my medication and made it through services. My head was still rather achy on Saturday and Sunday it was back in full force. One problem -- I was out of Imitrex and didn't get a chance to get refill it before my very long day started. PC (that's Prince Charming for the uninitiated!) didn't pick it up (too long to explain now) and during dinner, I just had it. The sounds, the noises, the smells -- everything! I actually contemplated going to the ER for help. The vision of boring a hole in my temple (not the shul type...the one attached to my head) in order to release the pressure always arises at this point a a truly viable option.

After a run to the drugstore, relief was just one pill away. That and some Tiger Balm on the temples and a cool, quiet, dark bedroom. It still took about 45 minutes to kick in, but the relief is almost unbearable -- if that makes sense. It is like removing a throbbing, searing band that has been constricting your brain -- the pain is so constant that the absence of it can set one off-balance.

As I explained to Beernut that I wasn't able to put him to bed and that he would have to come into my room for bedtime prayers, I wondered if he will look back on all the times that I need to lie down in the dark as having some negative effect on his childhood. Hope not. Can't really help it, anyway. And he'll need something to discuss with the therapist...

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Out of the Mouths of Babes (written for shul newsletter)

“If you and Daddy get dead and I am still a children, who will be my Mommy & Daddy?”

Beernut’s question brought our dinner-time conversation to a momentary standstill. He wasn’t really inferring that we, his parents, are replaceable. Rather, he was asking “who will take care of me if you aren’t here to do it?”

Children are often able to verbalize the fears that we as adults find difficult to express. Their innocence and candor permits a freedom that is lacking once we enter adulthood. The topic of death is a very adult topic, but the fears of abandonment and loneliness are ageless. When our loved ones die, we experience loneliness and the sense of abandonment can be palpable. We learn of the Psalmist’s anguish in Psalm 22:

My God, my God, why have You abandoned me; why so far from delivering me and from my anguished roaring? My God, I cry by day – You answer not; by night, and have no respite. (Ps. 22:2-3)

In our darkest moments, it is so very natural to feel distanced from God. It can truly feel as though God has betrayed us and that very distance acts as proof of God’s rejection. How then can we find our way back?

When I am desolate and afraid, I turn to the Psalms. I hear in them a keening not unlike my own. And then I hear the hope. The trust in God’s Presence. The reconciliation between the Psalmist and God.

I put my hope in the Eternal; God inclined toward me and heeded my cry. God lifted me out of the miry pit…and set my feel on a rock, steadied my legs. (Ps. 40:2-3)

Our Tradition gives voice to our full range of emotions. How blessed we are to have such a legacy from which we can garner strength!

Friday, January 07, 2005

Because 40 years in the desert wasn't enough...

That is the motto of our regional softball team. Betcha didn't know that rabbis play softball!!! To be honest, not all rabbi play. Actually, I don't play. But I do own an official shirt because I support my colleagues that do play. Each year (well, last year) we play our Conservative colleagues. This year we were rained out, but I expect this crazy tradition to resume next January!

I love rabbis! I really do ;) I look forward each year to our annual gathering in the local desert.

Coming back to reality, however, is always abrupt. Way too many things to complete and far too little time...

More after Shabbos!